It’s been nine months since we last saw a new prototype spacecraft roll out of SpaceX’s factory in Boca Chica, Texas. The unfinished rocket, designated S24, is slated for qualification testing, but the Elon Musk-led company still needs regulatory approval to launch the fully stacked system.
The deployment of the S24 prototype is a potential sign that SpaceX is on the right track to achieve the first orbital flight test of the fully stacked Starship rocket later this year, as Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, promised. That SpaceX will attempt 12 Starship launches in 2022 — another promise from Musk — seems overly optimistic at the moment, but crazier things have happened.
Starship is designed to transport cargo and passengers to Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars. Musk described it as a “generalized transport mechanism for the larger solar system”, but more conservatively, the company must demonstrate that the vehicle is capable of landing astronauts on the Moon, under a NASA contract. The space agency wants to place astronauts on the lunar surface by 2025, which means SpaceX must crack; a fully stacked Starship rocket has yet to leave the ground.
The sudden appearance of the Starship S24 prototype is therefore a welcome sign from the company. The unfinished unit left the SpaceX factory at the Boca Chica facility yesterday and was transported to a test area. A video posted on NASASpaceflight’s YouTube channel showed the new prototype being deployed, providing several clear insights views of the juggernaut. The prototype will need to pass some basic qualification tests, namely pressure and cryogenic proof tests. If all goes well, S24 will then be moved to suborbital block A for further evaluation, as Teslarati explains:
Rather than jumping straight into static fires, SpaceX will minimize the risk of catastrophic failure by first using hydraulic cylinders to simulate thrust from six Raptor V2 engines while Starship’s steel tanks and plumbing are cooled to temperatures cryogenic. Only after Ship 24 completes stress testing will SpaceX install new Raptor engines and [perform] several static lights.
Absent from the rocket are hundreds of tiles and an aerocoverbut the S24 has some differences from previous versions, such as a stronger thrust section, a new nose, an improved landing propellant tank and a payload bay and door, according to Teslarati.
The previous prototype, S20, made its first appearance in August 2021 and was retired in May 2022. The S20 never took flight, but it underwent Raptor static fire tests and was temporarily stacked on the booster Super Heavy BN4, making it the largest rocket ever assembled.
Depending on how things go, S24 could stay on the pad or be sent back to the factory for further work. The prototype could very well be the upper stage placed above the Booster 7, which is also under development at the Boca Chica facilities. The Super Heavy booster is about to undergo the installation of Raptor, according at NASASpaceFlight.
If SpaceX wants to perform its orbital test, however, the Federal Aviation Administration must complete its environmental review, which is scheduled for delivery on May 31. The FAA has delayed this highly anticipated review four times, but the regulatory agency is expected to release it for real next week. The Boca Chica facility, or Starbase as SpaceX employees call it, is located on environmentally sensitive land.
The outcome of the review could have a significant impact on the project; the worst-case scenario for SpaceX would be a full environmental assessment of the Boca Chica site, which could take years. Alternatively, the FAA could come back with a list of easily solvable recommendations that SpaceX should follow. Or something in between. Either way, we will follow these developments closely.
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